Too busy? Problem solve while you sleep

graphic of someone problem solving while asleep
Illustration by Julia Hermansson for
Portrait of Sarah Farrer
by Sarah Farrer
26 March 2019

Many world-changing ideas and innovations have emerged from the subconscious. Is this a coincidence or can our dreams really inspire ideas? And if so, how can we make the most of that?

Dreaming of big things

Dreams have been responsible for some of the scientific and creative discoveries that have shaped the course of human history.

Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is widely regarded as the most influential idea ever. And it came from a dream. In his dream, Einstein was telling a farmer about cows being surrounded by an electric fence, but the farmer saw something different. When he woke Einstein realised that the same event could vary from different perspectives. And this theory started to take shape.

Neil Bohr’s atomic structure – one of the biggest breakthroughs in the 20th century – was also discovered in a dream. Bohr dreamed he saw a nucleus of an atom with electrons spinning around it, like planets orbiting the sun. He started researching this dream, which turned out to be correct, and it led him to win a Nobel prize in 1922.

The Periodic Table started as a dream. So did Frederick Banting’s diabetes breakthrough, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Beatles’ hit Yesterday and even Google.


There’s no denying that we can generate some big ideas while we sleep. But how? The scientific name for this is ‘structured unconscious generative ideation’, or ‘sleep-storming’ as members of the meditation website Calm call it.

Sleep-storming (think brainstorming in your sleep) is essentially the belief that we can to train our brains to generate new ideas while we sleep. Balder Onarheim, founder of the Copenhagen Institute of NeuroCreativity explains: “When we fall asleep we go into deep sleep, and then about every 90 minutes we are in what’s called Rapid Eye Movement sleep or just dream sleep.”

Onarheim argues that in dreams we “don't apply too many rules”, meaning that we can use our dream sleep to be creative and work around the rules that confine us when we’re awake.

Priming your dreams

The inventor Thomas Edison once said: “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” Onarheim agrees and suggests priming your subconscious to generate new ideas before you go to sleep. “Right before you fall asleep try to think about the problem you’re trying to solve. Try to think about all the information you’ll need to solve it. But of course, you should not try to solve it because then you will not fall asleep,” he says.

The chances of actually dreaming about whatever ideas and problems you’re trying to create or solve will increase. This was scientifically proven by studies carried out in Harvard by Dr Robert Stickfold.

The subjects all played Tetris right before they fell asleep. They were woken up at regular intervals and all reported dreams of seeing Tetris pieces falling – even amnesiacs, who had no memory of playing the game.

Dr Stickfold said that this proves “that when we’re dreaming we’re not using that part of the brain that remembers exactly how things happen.”

The key is to wake up mid-dream, after 90 minute REM cycles, whether it’s after six hours or nine hours of sleep. That’s when the chances of waking up in dream sleep is higher.

When you wake up take notes. Even the most far-fetched thoughts may help with whatever idea you’re sleep-storming. Dreams seem to mimic the creative process in that they create connections between seemingly random things.

Lucid dreaming

Sleep-storming is one of the simpler ways to harness creativity in a sleep state. Taking it up a level is lucid dreaming, where dreamers are aware they are dreaming. Lucid dreaming typically occurs during REM. Some people say they have spontaneous lucid dreams, while others train themselves to start dreaming lucidly.

A few studies have found that focusing on problems within a lucid dream can offer results in the real world. And if you’re a creative person, you may also be more prone to lucid dreams.

Whatever approach you try, tapping into your unconscious mind can be a powerful way to explore and work out problems from your waking life.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details.